I was sexually assaulted at Equinox and banned for reporting it by@ColinHeilbut

I was sexually assaulted at Equinox and banned for reporting it

Colin Heilbut HackerNoon profile picture

Colin Heilbut

It wasn’t my first time participating in a yoga class, but it was the last thing I was expecting.
I attended an evening yoga class at Equinox, with an instructor I had seen twice before. He seemed like a good instructor.
Knowledgeable, skilled. His expertise in yoga gave me confidence in him as a person, and that gave me the ability to trust him.
So when the instructor asked me to stay after class — to help me with advanced yoga positions not covered in the regular session — I wasn’t suspicious. As far as I knew, I was just getting extra help from an expert yoga instructor with a decade of teaching experience. Only later did I learn that this was a very common tactic for predators to get what they wanted.
Initially the stretches were light and easy. But they did have an unusual amount of physical contact. I thought: maybe it’s a more hands-on style? Or maybe he was getting me used to more advanced positions? I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Then he took me into an isolated room and started making me do weirder yoga stretches, touching my legs and abdomen in ways that I initially rationalized as accidental. The combination of being in vulnerable positions and the lack of communication about the instructor’s intentions gradually made me extremely uncomfortable.
During our 30-minute private yoga lesson, he asked me to spread my legs as far as I could against the wall, so he could put his legs over mine and help me spread them open further. He asked me to lie on my stomach so he could sit on top of me — pressing his body against mine. Supposedly, this would enhance the stretch. He brushed his hand over my scrotum and my buttocks. He gave me a neck and back massage without warning or invitation. This touching was inappropriate and had nothing to do with yoga.
Looking at him a few feet away, I could see a bulge through his shorts. At the time, I didn’t immediately register this as an erection. Another person might have picked up on this sooner than I did. I’m a hairy, heterosexual, 33-year old man. I had never thought that I’d be in a situation like this. I had never thought of myself as vulnerable to sexual assault.
Then I heard a weird, brief moan. It sounded like an orgasm.
It wasn’t until after I had left the room that it sunk in, what had happened to me. I was nauseated. I was so shaken that I had forgotten to retrieve my shoes, my blue indoor running shoes that I take down from my locker before the beginning of every yoga class. I showered, changed into my second set of clothes, and walked out in a daze. I never found those shoes again.
I believe that I was sexually assaulted. I was so shaken by the incident that I started smoking again for the first time in many years. Every time I thought about what had happened, I had heart palpitations; my breathing became restricted; nausea would roll over me in waves. Thoughts of going to the gym and doing yoga now lead to unpleasant associations.
What happened to me — as a customer of Equinox, as a student of yoga, as a human being — was totally wrong. It was probably not the first time this yoga instructor had done this, I thought. I decided that, unless I did something about it, he might hurt more people in the community.
Legally, morally, and professionally, I followed every protocol there was for reporting sexual assault. I immediately drafted a statement and notified Equinox management about the incident. Sadly, I only received a single canned answer followed by radio silence for nearly three weeks. I heard from a third party that the yoga instructor had been let go, but Equinox refused to confirm this with me.
Within days of the assault, I decided to report the incident to the police. The police investigator tried to track down the yoga instructor, but initially Equinox wouldn’t cooperate. Equinox initially refused to acknowledge the existence of the yoga room security tapes and they would not release the phone number of the instructor or even help try to get him on the phone with the police. But, when the investigator and a member of the District Attorney’s Office finally got legal access to the tapes, both agreed that the actions of the yoga instructor were bizarre, unethical, unprofessional, and inappropriate. The investigator also told me that the instructor had been terminated from the gym.
Three weeks after I’d sent Equinox a request for assistance, I received a call from a senior global executive. Without an ounce of compassion, he told me I was banned from Equinox — that, as a private gym, they had the right to cancel my membership for any reason, and they’ve decided to terminate mine.
In my view, this is deplorable. As the major leading fitness brand, Equinox should never take this kind of approach in dealing with customers. I’ve paid over $10,000 in fees over the past two years, and I did not deserve to be treated so disrespectfully by the instructor, and I do not know why I should have been banned. For Equinox to cancel my membership, to ban me from the gym for no apparent reason only feeds a culture of victim-blaming.
Equinox should have handled my complaint properly. If there was some reason I was banned, they should have explained clearly what it was. Their actions do not reflect the basic norms of respect that corporations should show to their customers. Given the fact that an assault took place, they should have handled the situation with appropriate compassion, decency, and business ethics.
I understand that what I went through could have been worse. Far more awful assaults take place. And yet even as a well-educated, well-resourced, able-bodied heterosexual man, it took me weeks to navigate this exhausting process towards more just treatment, to see my own case to the unsatisfactory conclusion I’ve come to today — never mind the mental, professional, and emotional toll of speaking out against a huge, powerful corporation. If the odds were stacked against me, I can only imagine how much worse it would be for a young person, or a woman or transgender individual in a similar or even more traumatic situation.
I was an advanced student of yoga, but of all the moves I could have anticipated, not once did I ever think I would be sexually assaulted by my yoga instructor and banned from Equinox for reporting it. But that’s all the more reason I should speak up. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

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